UK Men's Basketball

With thrills and chills, ex-Cats say NBA Draft is a knockout experience

NBA commissioner David Stern, center, was flanked by Akeem Olajuwon, right, the No. 1 pick overall by the Houston Rockets, and Sam Bowie, the No. 2 pick overall by the Portland Trail Blazers at the NBA Draft in New York on June 19, 1984.
NBA commissioner David Stern, center, was flanked by Akeem Olajuwon, right, the No. 1 pick overall by the Houston Rockets, and Sam Bowie, the No. 2 pick overall by the Portland Trail Blazers at the NBA Draft in New York on June 19, 1984. AP

Former Kentucky star Rex Chapman’s NBA Draft experience included a heavyweight championship fight. The night before the 1988 draft, the league took Chapman and such likely picks that year as Danny Manning and Rik Smits to watch Mike Tyson fight Michael Spinks.

“When we got to our seats, the bell sounded,” Chapman said. “They came out. And the next thing we knew, it was over and we were leaving.”

Tyson knocked out Spinks 91 seconds into the first round.

The NBA Draft can be like Tyson-Spinks. A sense of anticipation, an anything-can-happen atmosphere and, if a player is lucky, a quick ending with his name called early.

When asked if he was uneasy or feeling on top of the world on draft night, ex-Cat Kenny Walker said, “All of the above, and then some. I was nervous. I was excited. It was almost every emotion you can feel.”

Four UK players will ride this emotional tidal wave during this year’s NBA Draft, which is Thursday. Walker, who was the fifth pick in the 1986 draft, sees Jamal Murray as fortunate to likely be picked early in the lottery.

“I can’t imagine being drafted later on because it just continues to build,” Walker said.

Skal Labissiere, Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress will likely have to wait. Then again, maybe they will adopt the Que Sera Sera attitude Willie Cauley-Stein took to last year’s NBA Draft.

“Slept on the bus ride there,” Cauley-Stein told the Herald-Leader’s Anthony Crawford of his trip from his Manhattan hotel to Barclays Center in Brooklyn. “Half asleep during the whole ceremony till your name is called.”

Projected to be among the top 10 picks, Cauley-Stein was philosophical about his eventual destination.

“You thought you’re supposed to go fifth, and you end up going 10th,” he said of the draft’s fluid nature. “Well, the 10 might be the better option for you.”

The Sacramento Kings took Cauley-Stein with the sixth pick.

No such haze for Sam Bowie, who went to the 1984 NBA Draft assured that the Portland Trail Blazers would take him with the second pick of the first round.

“Not that it took away from the excitement and enthusiasm,” he said.

For Bowie, the 1984 Draft was the culmination of a long struggle of rehabilitation and re-invention. A stress fracture forced him to sit out two UK seasons, which would be an eternity in today’s one-and-done college “careers.”

“There were a lot of tears shed and a lot of prayers,” Bowie said of his draft-night celebration with family and friends. “Just thankfulness.”

Basketball fans have grown accustomed to the sound and fury that is the NBA Draft. But it didn’t used to be this way.

Dan Issel, UK’s career scoring leader, found himself a pawn in the NBA’s competition with the American Basketball Association. The ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals called a friend of the Issel family to tell them it had the draft rights to Issel. The friend told the Chaparrals that Issel would only sign with one ABA team: the Kentucky Colonels.

The family friend “was contacted about a week later and told the Colonels were now holding my draft rights,” Issel said with a chuckle. He signed with the Colonels.

The NBA Draft in 1970? “I didn’t pay attention to it,” said Issel, who pointed out that the NBA finals were not even televised live in those long-ago days.

To go back in time even further, future Hall of Famers Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagan did not know they had been the fifth and 21st picks in the 1953 NBA Draft.

“That’s a whole other era,” Hagan said. “The ice age, really.”

After being drafted by the Boston Celtics, Hagan played for UK the following season and then served a two-year hitch in the military. In 1956, Hagan got a call from then-St. Louis Hawks Coach Red Holtzman. The Hawks had traded for his rights.

Ramsey also learned he had been drafted via a telephone call. Who called? “It could have been some newspaperman,” he said with a laugh.

Ramsey’s response to the news? “I said, ‘So?’” He also intended to return to UK to play his senior season.

“Being drafted wasn’t a big deal,” Ramsey said. “It was Kentucky basketball. We didn’t know anything about the pros.”

UK = NBA

In case there’s any confusion about Kentucky being the fast track to the NBA, here is a comparison on players drafted from 2010 to present. Of course, that is the era of John Calipari as coach.

UK has had 25 players drafted in that time: 19 in the first round and 10 among the top-10 selections. Those 10 are John Wall (first) and DeMarcus Cousins (fifth) in 2010, Enes Kanter (third) and Brandon Knight (eighth) in 2011, Anthony Davis (first) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (second) in 2012, Nerlens Noel (sixth) in 2013, Julius Randle (seventh) in 2014 and Karl-Anthony Towns (first) and Willie Cauley-Stein (sixth) in 2015.

In that same time period, Duke and Kansas have each had 12 players drafted. Ten first-rounders for Duke, nine for Kansas. North Carolina has had seven players drafted (six in the first round) and Louisville has had five players drafted (two in the first round).

Counting only players among the top-10 picks in those years, UK has had as many as Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville combined. The 10 for the other four schools are Harrison Barnes (seventh in 2012), Jahlil Okafor (third in 2015), Justise Winslow (10th in 2015), Jabari Parker (second in 2014), Austin Rivers (10th in 2012) Kyrie Irving (first in 2011), Andrew Wiggins (first in 2014), Joel Embiid (third in 2014), Ben McLemore (seventh in 2013) and Thomas Robinson (fifth in 2012).

Me or we?

The National Association of Basketball Coaches announced last week it had formed an ad hoc committee to provide input to the NCAA Tournament selecting, seeding and bracketing process.

UK Coach John Calipari was named to this committee. Other familiar coaching names to serve include Mark Few (Gonzaga), Bob Huggins (West Virginia) and Mark Gottfried (N.C. State). Former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive is a co-chair.

By the way, ad hoc is Latin for serving a specific purpose. This committee will concentrate solely on the NCAA Tournament.

Bill Hancock, who served as an NCAA liaison to the Selection Committee, welcomed the NABC’s move.

“Every entity should be its own harshest critic,” he said. “I think it’s a good step.”

About 20 years ago, it was suggested that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee could benefit from having more coaches — more “basketball people” — as members.

Former Virginia coach (and selection committee member) Terry Holland subscribes to this thinking. He said basketball wise men and women can better tell if a coach’s suggestion is motivated by self interest or for the good of the game.

“(They would) be able to determine whether they are very selfish in what they’re asking for or this happens to be good for their particular program,” Holland said. “Or whether it’s really good for everybody involved.”

With the coaching profession populated by highly competitive, Type-A personalities, it would seem self-interest would be the guiding principle.

“There may be some self-interest, as it is hard for great competitors to be 100-percent altruistic,” Holland wrote in a text message last week. “But I do believe most coaches simply want to believe there are potential improvements that could make the process better.”

Better? Perhaps. Free of second-guessing and complaints? Not likely.

“The bottom line is I’m glad someone is taking a look at it,” Hancock said. “I think it’s a terrific process. It’s been honed and massaged through the years, and is really terrific. But nothing will ever be perfect.”

Due diligence

Before he served on the Selection Committee, former N.C. State athletic director Les Robinson believed that thumbs were placed on the scales.

“I thought a bunch of guys get together out in Kansas City in a smoke-filled room (and say), ‘OK, we’ve got to get North Carolina and Kentucky and UCLA in,” he said.

What Robinson saw as a committee member, he said, was a committee trying its best to get it right. For instance, he said one year the best player on the Big Ten championship team was injured the week before the NCAA Tournament. The committee checked with the athletic director and then the attending physician about the player’s availability for the tournament.

The doctor said the star would not play.

Armed with this information, the committee moved the Big Ten champs from a No. 1 to a No. 2 seed, Robinson said.

Skal and Lakers

Former UK player Skal Labissiere worked out for the Lakers last week, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The Times said that Labissiere was listed as 6-10, 216 pounds. “So his weight might be an issue,” the newspaper said. “Most scouts see Labissiere as a player who can run the floor and play multiple positions, which is expected to make him a lottery pick.”

Labissiere, who averaged 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in a transitional season for Kentucky, spoke confidently of making an impact in the NBA.

“I think I’ll be a ‘four’ (power forward) because of my versatility, both on offense and defense,” he told the Times. “I can shoot the basketball, score inside, run the floor really well, block shots, guard small defenders.”

Another world

With talk about the NBA Draft and multi-million-dollar contracts at hand, a paragraph in The Detroit News caught the eye last week.

Columnist Bob Wojnowski wrote about the death of Gordie Howe, a.k.a., Mr. Hockey. Deep in his story about the funeral service was this:

“In the world we once knew, sports heroes weren’t separated from the public by differences in income, or adulation. Humility was considered the most admirable trait, and there were no entourages to erect barriers. That’s not even a slam on current stars. Because of money and fame and the intrusion of social media, barriers are almost a necessity.”

Whoops

Somehow, Mychal Mulder’s birthday got overlooked last week. He turned 22 on June 12.

Happy birthday

To Tim Stephens. He turned 58 on Thursday. … To Joe Crawford. He turned 30 on Friday. … To Ravi Moss. He turns 32 on Tuesday. … To Derek Willis. He turns 21 on Tuesday. … To Dennis Felton. The former Georgia and Western Kentucky coach turns 53 on Tuesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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